Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark “interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals — an older lawyer and a young novelist — whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert.” The cover of Krauss’s new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.
In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.
I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.
My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.
I knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.
I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.
And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.
I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.
But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.
In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published).
Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods.
Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees.
The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring.
Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read.
Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet.
Enter the Easter Bunny.
Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine.
There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says.
As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained.
Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves.
But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while.
(Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)
If you spend much time reading the various book blogs, you probably came across this National Book Award blind item at Beatrice. I did and I couldn’t stop wondering who this slighted author was. Speculation abounded at Tingle Alley, and I was stumped, too. But after stumbling upon a clue in the comments of a post at Mad Max Perkins, I did some snooping around, and I can now reveal that the slighted author is Jim Shepard. His books, Project X and Love and Hydrogen, were not submitted for consideration for the NBA because, according to Beatrice.com, his publisher did not follow the proper procedures. Now, I’m not so sure that either of Shepard’s books would have made the cut. But you never know. And you also have to wonder if everyone would be making such a big fuss if one of our women from New York were a man from Massachusetts.
Some of you may know that I’m a pretty big fan of comics, or to put it more broadly, stories told in a visual format. I’m not heavily into the superhero stuff, but I love newspaper comics and graphic novels as well as cartoons and animation of all kinds. So, naturally, I was pretty excited when I discovered Scott McCloud a couple of years back. McCloud is the author of two fascinating books, the first, Understanding Comics, is a study of visual storytelling. It is presented in a very clever comic format, and even if you never intend to create your own comic one day, it brings up a lot of interesting stuff about how we convey perceive narratives. A second book called Reinventing Comics addresses the many doors that have been opened to the medium by the advent of computers and the internet. Today I happened upon McCloud’s website. I’m not sure why I never thought to look for it before, but I’m glad I found it. There’s a blog, a daily improvisational comic, and tons of other comics by him and others. Check it out. It’ll keep you busy for a while.
As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d’If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas’ account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you’d prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) “400,000 people downloaded the report within hours” of its release.